For most of man’s history, slavery was an accepted institution. Few people questioned the morality of slavery; it was just the way things were. If you were a soldier and had the misfortune to be on the losing side of a battle, you would likely suffer one of two fates: if you were lucky you would be enslaved rather than killed. I suspect that the earliest slaves found their way into the institution via this route. It was probably not too much later that someone figured out that he could make a living buying and selling slaves. Eventually, demand exceeded the battle casualty supply, and raids were made for the sole purpose of capturing people for the slave market. All this began in prehistoric times and it continued unabated until fairly recently. In fact, if you look hard enough, you can still find some isolated examples of slavery today.

In Western Europe feudalism replaced slavery as the basis of the agricultural society. In the American colonies slavery reappeared when indentured servitude failed to meet the needs of agriculture. Africa was the place where slaves were available, and European slave traders bought African slaves and transported them to America. These traders did not chase down free people, most of them of noble birth, and enslave them. They bought slaves. They bought people who had already been enslaved by other Africans.

The evil of slavery is lack of choice. As a practical matter, a slave is no worse off physically than a poor free man, and in some cases he is better off. Even lack of choice is not a great disadvantage for most men in subsistence agricultural societies because few choices are available to such men, free or slave.

The eighteenth century brought the Age of Enlightenment. There is room for argument on the overall effect of this “enlightenment” on mankind as a whole, but there is no doubt that it sounded the death knell of slavery. Since the late eighteenth century, very few thinking men have been able to justify the abstract concept of slavery. In the early nineteenth century the British outlawed the international trade in slaves and the Royal Navy enforced the ban. That meant that no new slaves were brought to the Americas, but the institution was continued because no one knew how to end it without collapsing the economy. The Civil War solved that problem. When one loses a war, one expects economic hard times. Eventually the economy recovered.

Slavery in American history is not a cause for celebration. Neither is it a cause for lingering communal guilt. Slavery was an accepted institution from Eden’s exodus to relatively recent times. I doubt very seriously whether there is any human being on the face of the earth (including Europe’s remaining Crowned Heads) who does not have a slave branch on his family tree. None of us have been slaves; all of us have slaves in our ancestry; some more recently than others, but we all have them. I have seen a lot of the world, and I am very glad that my grandparents decided to come to the United States. In my opinion, every citizen of these United States should be thankful that his ancestors came here, no matter what the circumstances of the journey.